Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Relevance of Christian Just War Theory in Modern Foreign Policy

I recently opened my big stupid mouth and said that one of my Just War Theory professor's paper assignments did not sound like it would be fun, which made him get all creepily "oh, you want FUN do you?!?" about it. He then assigned us something that was still a weighty paper but was less formal than usual. The idea was to write something that could be printed as an OpEd column in a newspaper, defending the value of Christian Just War Theory in today's foreign policy, even to non-Christians. (I believe the prompt did give you the choice to say it had no value, but I happen to think that's incorrect.) Since the idea was to speak to the masses, I thought it might be worth actually taking to said masses. Feedback welcome!


Today we find ourselves enmeshed in three wars: the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan, and a war of opinion. Our public discourse is awash in vitriol but lacks a certain seriousness that would allow us to properly discuss the military wars before us, creating a third war of words. At the same time, our society is secularizing; religion has taken on the feeling of a hobby or pasttime, the Western zest for toleration leads us to place a wide berth around any assertions that one religion more than any other is superior, and misreadings of the American Constitution have fostered a wild paranoia that any religious influence upon government will send our government spiralling into oppressive theocracy. Our troubled relationship with religion has prompted us to abandon certain options available to us in referring to church-influenced theory, primarily those of Christian Just War Theory. Considered rightly, Christian Just War Theory can provide us with a moral language to use to discuss the justice of our military wars and a context in which we can consider them. Christian Just War Doctrine relies on a natural law accessible to all men, which renders worries about strictly religious government influence moot. Finally, our engagement with the Muslim world demands that we address matters of theological doctrine, whether we choose to or not. Though Christianity may not speak for the West as a whole, Christian theorists have made enough of an effort to make their arguments accessible to Christians and non-Christians alike that they provide an effective starting point for the consideration of justice in war.

It is particularly difficult to gauge the justice of a war from the center of it, and it may be impossible for every citizen of the United States to come to an agreement on the status of both the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. Moreover, there are two aspects of war to appraise for justice – the decision to go to war, and the way we transact it once we are there. These complications do not exempt us from the justice of our wars, particularly if the United States wishes to continue its reputation as a benevolent force on the international stage. The necessity of these considerations demands that we develop a reasoned, methodical approach to apply, and this in turn requires us to subscribe to a more deeply rooted basis for our theories. Modern American politics operate on a somewhat superficial understanding of political urgency; even if these politicians do appeal to a less transient rationale than their emotions, they rarely go deeper than the American Constitution. Though that document is grounded in grand liberal tradition and forms the basis for American life, it is relatively young and restrains our politics to a certain depth. Christian Just War Theory encourages us to look beyond our particular political structures and rely on natural law for guidance.

There are two primary sources of Christian Just War Theory and both understand Just War to be a limiting force. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas understand that any political consideration of war must begin with the realities of man's fallen state and that because of this, man's “profound desire for justice” is difficult for him to realize. A just war must be proportionate and narrow, which can sate both the desire for revenge and the desire for justice. As we mentioned before, it is difficult to gauge actions in the thick of war. Considering the justice of a war will limit unjust acts in the heat of the moment, freeing the combatant from later regret associated with the unjust actions. In St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, he explores four essential questions of Just War and provides three necessities for going to war justly. Thomistic Just War requires that the ruler setting out to war have legitimate sovereignty, that there must be just cause, and that the intent of the combatants be rightful (Summa Theologica, Part II, Question 40, sect. 1). The requirements of both men cut a large swath through many of history's wars, so frequently fought over minor slights and mere property. Christian Just War limits the combatants to the pursuit of good and the destruction of evil, not temporal – and temporary – gains. Just War is not for the pursuit of simple victory but of the tranquilitas ordinis, a peace that would allow people to live as children of God.

With this guidance, we can get to war, but questions continue after the initial decision is made. Aquinas carefully analyzes the questions of clergy participation, the laying of ambushes and fighting on holy days to understand how to transact a just war. In the end, clergy may not participate because it is fundamentally opposed to their service to God. It is, however, acceptable to go to war on holy days, because a just war would be in the service of God and there is a precedent for the meting out of religious punishments on holy days. Perhaps most important however is the approval of ambushes in action but not in speech (Summa Theologica, Part II, Question 40, sect. 2-4). This distinction reveals the heart of Christian Just War Theory – ambushes in deed push the war for just cause forward, but ambushes in speech make the tranquilitas ordinis virtually impossible because the trust and honor upon which it depends cannot exist if the peace was forced through lies. We see here that justice must be considered at every step, not just on the path to war.

Though Augustine and Aquinas so refer to the Christian God in their theories, the bulk of the arguments are based on natural law teaching, and this basis allows Christian Just War Theory to reach well beyond Christianity. Natural law is accessible to all men. Americans understood that there was such a law and based their own government on this knowledge long ago at the country's founding. In this way, the relative youth of the American government and its foundation in natural law make Christian Just War Theory uniquely applicable to our foreign policy. In George Weigel's article Iraq: Then and Now, he explains that the Bush Administration referred often to Just War Theory in the much maligned 2002 National Security Strategy, though the aspect that the media clung to was that of preemption (Weigel, p.39-40). Discussed without a serious consideration of Christian Just War Theory, preemption seems a choice more suited to sandbox squabbles, but in context, we may understand the choice to strike first as a blow against injustice rightly understood.

Weigel also takes aim at the idea of the United Nations as an international authority on just war, successfully attacking the claims to sovereignty often raised by its advocates. One part of our fallen state so willingly embraced by Christian Just War Theorists is our mortality and our inescapable connection to the Earth. This means that our political life is necessarily influenced by our connection to and perceived ownership of our territory and property. Sovereignty originates in this physical politics and the United Nations relies on the gift of power from member nations for the mere illusion of sovereignty. Even the United Nations' Charter understands this reality. As Weigel points out, Article 51 leaves an “'inherent' right of self-defense” to the member states (Weigel, p.37), and if this right remains under the purview of individual nations, then the UN has no sovereign authority – it cedes the valuation of war and justice, ostensibly the most important part of statecraft, to individual nations. Without sovereignty, there can be no just war in the Christian tradition nor in natural law teaching. We must abandon the United Nations as anything more than a tangentially useful center for debate, and not allow it to guide our foreign policy.

Christian Just War Theory and its basis in natural law provides an excellent guide for determining the justice of our wars. “Christianity” has become a strangely loaded term in American political discourse, and people may shy away from something they believe requires them to sign on to theological doctrine. It is the natural law foundation to Just War Theory that makes it accessible to all men, not its Christian structure. The Theory demands that we take justice seriously and adopt a complete and operable vocabulary for the application of justice to war. None of this is to say that Christian theory must be stripped of its theological bent to be accepted by a large population. There are certain themes that are reflected across religions, and even atheists can agree that man is not perfect. This is what Augustine found so important to considerations of just war. He called it a fallen state, but that is his term for a universally understood term. A fallen state means temptation from earthly desires, and this is why we need to take such great care in the contemplation of war. Reinhold Neibuhr points ouf that “Even the most 'Christian' civilization and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be known only were there is some awareness of a contradiction between divine and human purposes, even on the highest level of human aspirations (Neibuhr, The Irony of American History, p. 173).” He goes on to remind us that our enemies' unjust actions come from the same impulses that lead us astray to unjust wars both ius and ad bello. It is considering our actions seriously that can keep us from acting in defiance of natural law, and Christian Just War can help us pay these questions the attention they are due.

It is easy to understand how non-Christians would shy away from embracing Christian Just War Theory, but when we examine the teachings thereof, we see that Christian teachings on just wars are some of the only approaches that make a serious effort towards creating a widely applicable, grounded context for the study of war. Its dual justification through both theological and natural law doctrines increases its accessibility and encourages the student of politics to talk about and rightly consider war. Our impoverished political dialogue cries out for nourishment, for something deeper than punditry. Christian Just War Theory offers us this lacking seriousness, and gives us more to work with than the emotions of the moment. In a time of great unrest and a reinvigoration of theological struggles between the Muslim world and the West, Christian Just War Theory's measured approach only gains in value and appeal.

No comments:

Post a Comment